I was skeptical about the plan to hold a daily news chat (using the amazing, excellent, can’t say enough good things about it Cover it Live software) on our site every weekday for an hour and a half, hosted by our senior writer, George.

My main reservation – and forgive me George and Jack (semi-co-host) who may or may not read this – was the fact that we killed a daily newscast because it took too much time to do. For those two, a daily 90 minute chat would be even more of a time suck than our newscast ever was. But bless their cotton socks, they still wanted to try this.

My other reservation was the Troll Factor. The fellas have high hopes of our endeavour being a place for good discussion on the news topics of the day. A sort of coffeehouse conversation that the town mayor, or city council member may stop in to from time to time. As the longtime (and often long-suffering) admin of our forums and moderator of our story comments, I also know that the town crank might also show up and get everyone all riled up.

So it was with some trepidation that I got on board with the plan.

I’m happy to say that we’ve been doing the chat for two weeks now and it’s exceeded even my curmudgeonly expectations. We have had a troll or two, but because of Cover it Live’s method of previewing comments before they go live, we’re able to respond to them or squash them if we need to. But for the most part, the discussion topics have ranged from downtown improvement (a hot topic actually, requiring a couple days devoted to it), wind energy, the big State Fair move and other local stuff. It’s turning out to be exactly what George and Jack hoped for.

There’s been a learning curve though. Some things we’ve learned:

  • Don’t have a bunch of staff in the chat talking to each other if you can help it. It can put people off from joining in.
  • If you have do have a couple staffers in there keeping the flow of conversation going, try to coordinate your comments, either by yelling across the newsroom, or using the private message function in CiL. This will prevent them from making the same comment or asking the same question at the same time :)
  • You should have someone acting as the ‘Gatekeeper/Greeter’. At the Indy, this is my job. I watch incoming comments and allow them through, watch for trolls, and also for regulars who have returned. The regulars get to post without moderation. If you’re new, I may have you wait for that privilege until I can be sure you’re not going to spout obscenities or drag the conversation off topic. I also try to welcome new people as they come in and make it feel comfortable for them to join the conversation (I know it can be intimidating for some people.)
  • I also throw an ad into the chat every 20 minutes or so :) Right now we just have house ads, but we’re working on selling ads/sponsorship for this.
  • Today, we had our first guests in to talk. I learned the best way to handle that is to not do any ‘allow posting without moderation’. Everyone had to be moderated first because 1. The font colour/format helps the guests see a new comment 2. allows me to let the guest(s) answer each question before seeing the chat flooded with other questions and 3. puts the kibosh on the trolls.
  • Find a spot somewhere to archive all of the chats. For this case, I set up a quick and dirty WordPress blog to house them: http://grandislandblogs.com/amgi. This way, anyone – a regular perhaps – who missed it can go see the replay.
  • Use the quick polls, twitter feeds, scoreboards, newsflash options, video feeds – all the bells and whistles Cover it Live offers because I’m telling you, they’re freaking awesome.
  • If the discussion is on a topic in the paper that day, make sure you link to it in the chat a time or two. But also, don’t be afraid to “link out” of your paper’s site as well. It’s okay ;)
  • Try to keep each chat session to one or two topics, but it is okay to let the conversation flow naturally as well. No need to be a Topic Nazi.
  • Set realistic goals for it, not lofty ones. Otherwise you set yourself up for disappointment. For example, don’t say, “Let’s aim for 300 unique readers by the second month.” Instead, aim for getting one guest in a week.
  • Don’t be discouraged by slow days. Not every chat is going to fly. Persevere.

Our numbers have astonished us. For a small paper, we’re averaging about 75 unique readers a day, with 75% of them sticking around longer than a minute. Replays are growing each day as well.

Our newsroom is watching the chat every day as well. We learned that discussion generated in the chat led to some story ideas for reporters when they were in a budget meeting.

We also learned that our session on the local Downtown Business Improvement District issue caused one councilman to cast a ‘No’ vote on the issue after seeing the discussion.

Those two reasons alone make me reverse my position on the whole thing. I’m excited about it, all the way now :) Next week we will have a Senator in to discuss renewable energy and Nebraska’s Safe Haven law, and in April, we managed to get the governor to agree to join us. Very exciting!